Reclaiming Data, Reclaiming Narratives: Jonathan Dewar, Sofia Locklear, and Jason Lewis on Indigenous Data SovereigntyJanuary, 2022
How can indigenous communities reshape data regimes to exercise their right to self-determination, tell the stories of their communities, and imagine better futures generations from now? Speaking on a virtual panel today moderated by Alison Hearn at Western University are Jonathan Dewar, Sofia Locklear, and Jason Lewis. This panel is part of a series called Big Data at the Margins. I was in the audience and took these notes, which I hope are useful to others who weren’t able to attend, as an alternative to watching the recording.
Hearn opens with an acknowledgement that though we’re gathering remotely, most of us are situated on the traditional territory of First Nations and Indigenous peoples. She thanks the generations of people who have taken care of the land where Western is situated, and recognizes the contributions of indigenous peoples to local communities. This recognition is connected to commitments to an ongoing struggle for justice.
A growing movement of indigenous scholars and activists are challenging the ethical, legal, and cultural impacts of colonial, externally mandated forms of data collection. Indigenous people know all too well the harms of settler-colonial policies. But even while nation-states around the world, including Canada, commit to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the implementation of these provisions continue to rely on data collection by statistical agencies of nation-states, NGOs, and commercial interests. These practices are uninformed by indigenous priorities and values, and do not treat indigeous peoples as sovereign peoples with rights over their own resources, including information. Indigenous data sovereignty calls for the redesign of how data is collected and used, and for the rights of indigenous peoples to define and imagine their own narratives and futures.
A First Nations Data Governance Strategy
Jonathan Dewar is CEO of the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC). His work involves a specific and practical example of how First Nations are asserting data sovereignty in Canada.
FNIGC exists because of a legacy of unethical information use. Data sovereignty is about relationships between first nations and other parties, including Canada, provinces, territories, and other actors. In the 1990s, Canada made a choice to leave First Nations out of important population surveys. First Nations are always facing a dearth of good information about their communities. Though Canada’s tools were admittedly poor, being left out still posed a challenge. First Nations leaders turned that challenge into an opportunity to create the Regional Health Survey, the first national health survey by First Nations, for First Nations.
FNIGC envisions that every First Nation will achieve data sovereignty in alignment with their distinct worldview. This acknowledges the incredible diversity among the Nations in the land that we now call Canada. They create national surveys, conduct research, and do education and capacity-building in institutions.
If you’re familiar with FNIGC, it’s probably because of First Nations Principles of OCAP. OCAP stands for Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession. When Nations first came together to work on data governance, there were conversations about the ethics of this work. The principles came out of these initial conversations, and have informed work by FNIGC and other organizations going forward.
FNIGC is working to develop a First Nations data governance strategy. After decades of work, they have been able to get the federal government to fund work on a national data governance strategy, and on establishing regional information governance centres. More information on their data governance strategy proposal is available on their website. Before this work, the Canadian government did not dedicate resources toward indigenous-led data strategies. Previous funding was project-based, instead of toward a broader vision.
FNIGC is building toward institutions by and for First Nations. Institution-building takes years. This means developing new infrastructure. Though they’ve long held aspirations and not seen investments to match the scale of those aspirations.
How will communities and nations benefit? For the first time in history, First Nations will be able to build capacity toward self-determination, and take part in a global data revolution. First Nations leaders will have the information they need to protect rights, make informed decisions, advocate for resources, negotiate, provide services, and engage strategic partners.
Indigenous Evaluation: Indigenizing Data
Sofia Locklear is an assistant professor in Information & Media Studies at Western University. Her research focuses on race, whiteness, and the racialization of indigenous peoples.
Sofia is a citizen of Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and is also from the urban native community in Seattle, WA. Sofia speaks to a U.S. context, though the work is also applicable to Canada. She shares a picture of her grandmother’s hand holding a piece of cotton. Growing up, her family was picking cotton and sharecropping, which was part of the work that made it possible for her to be here. She reminds us that in thinking about indigenizing data, a key piece is honoring where we came from, who we do this for, and who we’re responsible to.
Indigenous people have always done research. Indigenous people were the first scientists, first agriculturalists, and the first to have what is now called sustainable resource management. Indigenous ancestors collected both quantitative and qualitative data.
An example is the Lakota winter counts. Using inscription on buffalo skins and deer hides, people kept counts of things like horses, citizens, and lodges. Another example is totem poles. While totem poles were used to tell tribal stories, they also recorded histories, marriages, and land rights.
Though indigenous peoples were the first data gatherers, these practices were co-opted by colonialism and white supremacy, and people were excluded on a racial basis in the U.S. Historically and contemporarily, data is often weaponized against indigenous people.
When Sofia thinks about indigenous data, she thinks about data in any form that affects the lives and life chances of individuals and collectives. Indigenous data sovereignty is the right of each tribe to exercise its sovereignty over the collection, ownership, and application of data. Indigenous data sovereignty is guaranteed in the UNDRIP, which is a human rights instrument that covers civil, social, political, and land rights, and the right to self-determination (which includes data).
If indigenous data sovereignty is about the right of each tribe to exercise their autonomy, we know this isn’t a one size fits all model. Sovereignty isn’t practiced the same way by all groups. This broad definition contains questions about who is counted in nations and groups, how sovereignty can be exercised within a settler-colonial state, and whether tribes actually have the resources to actually participate in their own data management and collection.
How do we indigenize data to think about it in a way that allows indigenous peoples to tell their own stories and own truths instead of being defined by others? The concept of sovereignty does not require recognition from a settler institution or a governing body. Sofia’s work considers how indigenous data sovereignty includes urban communities that don’t live on federally-defined reservation land. Often, conversations can include urban native people. Due to genocidal relocation and assimilation policies, or because there are more economic opportunities in cities, or also simply because people can live wherever they want, the majority of indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada live in urban settings. But indigenous rights should be extended to everybody regardless of where they live (including data rights).
Before Western, Sofia was working at Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI). They work with urban native communities in the U.S. on chronic disease prevention. UIHI has a national focus and supports data collection, analysis, evaluation. They also do work on missing/murdered indigenous women/girls/two-spirit people.
UIHI uses art to tell stories and to share data. Blackfeet artist John Pepion created a visual representation of UIHI. Ledger art uses old documents that have been inscribed with counts of things, and overlays beautiful indigenous art over the colonial data. In the image, an indigenous woman sits at a modern desk and computer. The data is confined to the computer, and not dictating how she does research. The corn at her feet symbolizes the grounding of cultural values in land and place and nurturing future generations. She is doing the work for one purpose: love of native people.
Sovereignty is about the right for communities to determine which data is appropriate to tell their own stories. Data looks like and is more than just numbers. Data includes art, dreams, storytelling, and music.
This idea of storytelling was important to UIHI’s work developing an indigenous evaluation framework. Evaluation work is about telling the story of a program or grant. Often, federal funders ask for evaluation data and ask for metrics that are usually inappropriate to communities. UIHI developed an evaluation framework that recognizes that community is created wherever Native people gather, focuses on strengths rather than deficits, benefits Native communities, and centers community throughout the whole process.
Sofia shares photos from an urban native community in California. They used photos to tell the story of the work they were doing on chronic disease prevention as part of formal evaluation for federal funders. These photos are beautiful and also hold a lot of data. In western frameworks, this would be called process and outcome: there is a photo of purple sage, and jars of purple sage olive oil. Their project involved traditional foods and was rooted in cultural knowledge. Art has been historically disregarded by settler institutions as a valid data instrument. But UIHI is submitting it to federal funders as evaluation evidence.
As another example, an urban native community in Washington started a project where elders planted tobacco and created prayer ties with the tobacco. Funders asked for inappropriate data to “prove” the success of the program. The elders decided that the indigenous evaluation activity would be tied to the cultural activity of making prayer ties. To translate this piece for funders, Sofia would call it “participant observation.” During the process, elders shared their traditions and emotions and memories. This practice is centered in relationality and relationships. However, not a lot of this was shared externally. Indigenous data sovereignty involves the ideas that 1) not all data has to be or should be shared outside of community, and 2) there’s a right to refusal that is inherent to sovereignty.
Data has the power to transform and uplift indigenous communities, especially when it’s collected by and for indigenous people. Data matters because it’s a form of knowledge, and a form that settler-colonial states recognize. It dictates funding opportunities, health outcomes, and larger social narratives about indigenous communities. Data sovereignty is not only an exercise in methods, but also a political act that defines what counts, who is counted, what decisions are made. It is about reclaiming narratives from white colonial understandings and telling the stories of communities — both the hardships and joy.
Sofia’s recommendations for books on indigenous data: Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an agenda (2016), and Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Policy (2020). Both are open access (free to read online).
The Indigenous Future Imaginary
Jason Lewis is a media theorist, poet, and software designer. At Concordia University, he co-directs the Indigenous Futures Research Centre and Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace Research Network.
Jason has been working with indigenous artists, scholars, knowledge-holders to pursue the question: How can we integrate advances in computational technology into indigenous knowledge frameworks? While his talk is not about data sovereignty specifically, he sees a connection that data sovereignty is a central and important part of getting to the futures that he imagines as an artist.
Jason is inspired by Cree filmmaker Loretta Todd’s essay from 1996 called Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace. Loretta asks, “Can our narratives, histories, language, and knowledge find meaning in cyberspace?” At the time, the internet was new and a lot of people (particularly indigenous people) didn’t have access. In the essay, she was responding to a piece called Inherent Rights, Vision Rights by Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. As far as Jason knows, it is the first VR work created by an indigenous artist. The work attempted to depict the West Coast Native Canadian longhouse to represent ceremonial space in virtual space. Since the 80s-90s, there has been interesting and groundbreaking work done by indigenous artists on the question of existing in virtual spaces. These lay the groundwork for questions not just about art, but about our general engagement with virtual technologies.
Jason shows us a 2002 piece he made in collaboration with Mohawk artist Skawennati Tricia Fragnito. It is called Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Technological World. He made it to answer provocations by Loretta and Lawrence Paul, attempting to extend the Mohawk Thanksgiving address to give thanks with technology.
Jason was interested in what it means to bring these technologies into indigenous cultural practices in a meaningful way. He wants to operate with deep respect for Indigenous ways of knowing and living, while engaging with technologies that are often rooted in oppressive worldviews. His main approach is to use the idea of future imaginaries to speculate about what social configurations, cultural frameworks, and political structures will exist in seven generations. Future imaginaries provide communities with a shared vocabulary for imagining the future they desire.
He shares some examples of future imaginaries that the Initiative for Indigenous Futures has commissioned, created, or produced. Bold Steps, by Jeffrey Veregge, designs the equipment for the first indigenous astronaut in space. The Peacemaker Returns, by Skawennati, is a machinima that tells a story about five interstellar species. Blueberry Pie Under a Martian Sky by Scott Benesiinaabandan uses his Anishinaabe community’s stories about having descended to earth to tell a VR story about a youth travelling through a black hole back to their point of Anishinaabe origin. Terra Nova by Maize Longboat is a game about future contacts between indigenous people and people coming from outer space to their territory. Seal-Skin Spacesuit by Jesse Tungilik explores what it might mean to take Inuit material culture into space.
To dive more deeply into a future imaginary case study, Jason presents work called Indigenous Protocols for Artificial Intelligence. The project started with an essay called “Making Kin with the Machines” about indigenous perspectives on AI. For Jason, a major difference between indigenous perspectives and western worldviews (through which much of AI is developed) is an emphasis on relationality between humans and non-humans. Indigenous perspectives are better at respectfully accommodating the non-human. This essay inspired IP AI workshops, which gathered indigenous thinkers to explore connections between protocol, kinship, relationality, and AI. After the workshop, they collectively wrote an IP AI position paper. Contributions to this 205 page document were meant to honor different perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds in the workshops.
One contribution to the paper was Suzanne Kite’s essay, “How to Build Anything Ethically.” The essay uses Lakota methodology for building sweat lodges to think through what it might mean to build computer systems from an indigenous perspective at every step — from when materials for computers are brought out of the ground, to when those materials are put back into the ground.
Jason’s current work involves moving “from impoverished intelligence to abundant intelligence.” This means embracing variety in thinking by reframing the core challenge in AI from ethical to epistemological. Ethics assumes we share a foundation from which we can articulate a set of moral principles. This foundation often assumes a western liberal subject. This results in assumptions that are built into systems. For example, systems assume a user is an individual that treats self-interest as primary and culture as secondary, that text and context can be separated, and a focus on instrumentality. We have to expand our thinking to include a range of epistemologies other than the dominant one. Indigenous epistemologies are a place to start doing that work.
As an artist and software developer who collaborates with computer scientists, Jason thinks about how to put this into practice. He says that we need to understand indigenous knowledge frameworks from the community’s perspective; imagine how these frameworks will be integrated with computational methods; formalize knowledge frameworks to make them legible to computer systems; develop datasets, models, and algorithms that integrate knowledge properly with computational methods; implement thesse systems; and integrate them into community practices. This process is not easy, but it’s in these processes that we can tell our stories with the tools available, as we learn to align tech with indigenous knowledge protocols and create the futures we want.
How do we reconcile data sovereignty with open data? Artists often want to share their work widely. The moment data is released, there’s a loss of control.
Jason: Participants in the workshop thought about how to collect data with a community’s consent and create agreements about how to make that data available for people who are working on things that might be useful for that community. Across all different domains, this is a live question. How do we create something that allows us to take advantage of how technologies might serve communities’ interests, but still keep it close to the community? It’s a challenging question from both a social and technological standpoint. Work like FNGIC is a necessary first step: building technical and institutional capacity.
Jonathan: These challenges will vary regionally based on governance regimes. If information identifies a First Nations community, it’s their collective right to control it. Does canadian law support this? No. is there a push to see FN rights centered? Yes. But even funding investment doesn’t necessarily imply a willingness to have a complete paradigm shift from how it’s been done in the past.
Working in the academy in a university setting, has it been hard to reconcile different forms of research and data collection in your own work and push boundaries of scholarship?
Sofia: There is a push and pull of trying to do this in institutions like higher ed, or within a colonial federal government system. She has found resistance in the academy, but there’s also a groundswell of amazing indigenous scholars who are doing this work. There are more shifts happening for different forms of knowledge and data to be accepted. It’s necessary to both work within the reality of a colonial system and try to create change, while at the same time wanting complete and total transformation and deconstruction of settler-colonial systems.
Jason: After 21 years in the academy, he’s seen it improve a lot. He sat on a human subjects research ethics board earlier in his career, and had painful conversations about data protocols with indigenous communities. The mindset was very much extractive and focused on individuals instead of the ethical rights of communities. Funding agencies have gotten more serious about having aboriginal research frameworks, making sure that work on indigenous communities includes indigenous partners, and requiring plans to deal with the data according to community goals. There are complications: communities are not monolithic, and it’s sometimes unclear who the authority in the community is. But there is slow progress. As Sofia says, it’s both-and. We need to address immediate needs while also creating space to imagine where we want to go—not just tomorrow or next year, but in generations.
Is there any parallel to #LandBack for data sovereignty and indigenous AI? Does #DataBack make sense, and what would it look like?
Jason: if you want to take the data back, you have to have somewhere to put it, and need people trained to handle it. What does it mean to build capacity in these areas? We need to train up people in healthcare, policy, and law. Should we be encouraging our young people to look in this direction, and provide funding and resources to do so? Until we can fully staff FNIGC’s proposed data centres with indigenous people, even if we have sovereignty, it will be difficult to exercise the sovereignty if we have to rely on non-indigenous people to build, equip, and run the infrastructure that data requires.
Sofia: Realizing #DataBack would include returning our cultural artifacts that are in museums. But it’s not just about getting data back. In the US, there’s an issue even with just getting American Indians and Alaska Natives included in data. So often, they are excluded from really important data sources. We don’t have good data on missing/murdered indigenous people. it’s not collected, and when it is collected, it turns into another problem of racial misclassification where indigenous women/girls are being classified as something else in law enforcement systems. UHIH has used FOIA to get data from police departments, and found that many indigenous women were being misclassified as white. They are also often misclassified as black because police use the initial “N” to represent and count both native and black people.